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State of Trojans, Irish still hard to define after USC's thrilling victory

Sure enough, Notre Dame was the lead story Saturday. Just not for either of the reasons we assumed.

Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis told his players Thursday that one way or another, the result of Saturday's meeting with USC would lead the listing of trending college football topics. Of course, even Weis probably assumed the game would make him or break him. Turns out, Weis was neither made nor broken Saturday. We couldn't squeeze a 34-27 USC win into either of the boxes we had designated for this game. We can't tell you Notre Dame announced its return as an elite program by beating the Trojans, and we can't suggest that Notre Dame boosters should take up pitchforks and torches and chase Weis out of town after another blowout loss to USC.

All we can tell you is that USC was four yards better than Notre Dame on Saturday. Though it probably offers little consolation for forlorn Golden Domers, that ain't bad. All things considered, that might be bigger news than the following events:

1) Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford aggravated his shoulder injury in a loss to Texas.

2) Purdue beat Ohio State.

3) Florida almost lost at home to Arkansas.

4) Idaho earned bowl eligibility.

5) Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech.

Obviously, that means little to the Notre Dame players who came so close to a win for the ages.

"It's just a heartbreaker," Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "Period." Later, Clausen started a new sentence. "What we did today showed a lot to the country," Clausen said. "I'm so proud of this team to keep fighting when we were down. I think that's what this team's all about."

Like the Trojans or not, they belong among the elite. USC has won the Pac-10 -- a conference better than most people east of the Rockies give it credit -- for seven consecutive years. Recent history suggests the Trojans will find a way to run the table this season and make it eight. Given the tumult likely to take place in the polls Sunday and beyond, USC might even play for the national title.

The Trojans boast a true freshman quarterback who has won in Columbus and in South Bend. On Saturday, Matt Barkley threw for 380 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception bounced off his intended receiver's hands. The Trojans also have a fast, bruising defense that features one of the nation's best players in safety Taylor Mays.

Despite that, Notre Dame came up just four yards short. The talent gap, so wide in recent years that it seemed Touchdown Jesus was illustrating the point with his hands, has narrowed. USC still has better players, but no longer do the Trojans have the best player at every position.

All week, Weis and his players swore they had a chance. They swore this team, now completely stocked with Weis recruits, could finally break USC's stranglehold on the jeweled shillelagh. We quoted them accurately, but all but the truest Domer diehard believed USC would crank out another five-touchdown win. And when Trojans back Joe McKnight scored to make it 34-14 with 13:33 remaining, we consulted The Associated Press style manual to make sure pitchfork is one word and not two.

Then, something strange happened. Notre Dame came back. After the McKnight touchdown, Clausen marched his team 68 yards in seven plays to make it 34-20. Then, after Gary Gray's interception return gave the Irish the ball in the red zone, Clausen hit Golden Tate for a 15-yard score.

The defense held, and Clausen led Notre Dame down the field again. On fourth-and-10 from the 29 with 42 seconds remaining, Clausen hit Robby Parris for a 13-yard gain. Because Mays yanked the helmet off Parris' head during the tackle, Notre Dame got the ball on the 8. One roughing-the-passer penalty later, Notre Dame had first-and-goal at the 4 with nine seconds remaining.

Clausen tried a lob to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught a deflected ball out of bounds. Four seconds left. Clausen missed Tate on a slant, the one route that would leave Notre Dame with time on the clock. But there was no time. The clock struck zero. The Trojans celebrated. Weis protested. More than 80,000 howled. Then, as the replay official watched the video to determine if a second remained, they chanted. "We want one! We want one!" Had that third-down play led to a touchdown and an eventual Notre Dame win, "We want one" might have meant as much to a Notre Dame fan in 2070 as the Four Horsemen or Rudy mean to fans today.

But it didn't. Clausen looked for receiver Duval Kamara. It should have been Parris out there, but Parris had been carried off injured after the fourth-down play. Ball and receiver never met. USC had to win the game twice, and the Trojans went 2-0. "They doubled the fun of trying to get it done," USC coach Pete Carroll said.

Notre Dame players choked back sobs as they stood before the student section for the playing of the alma mater. Weis looked miserable. After the final note, as the players trudged toward the locker room, a group of recruits followed them. One was Chris Martin, a defensive end from Aurora, Colo., who favors Notre Dame but who also has offers from USC, Florida and a host of others.

Whether Weis is the coach next year is anyone's guess. Judging by Saturday's result, he seems to have the program headed in the proper direction, but his two signature games are near-misses against USC. He still doesn't have a hallmark win. If the Irish go undefeated the rest of the way, they'll play in a BCS bowl for the third time in his tenure. But the schedule isn't a cakewalk. It wouldn't shock anyone if Notre Dame lost to Boston College, Pittsburgh, Navy or Stanford.

All we know is that Weis loves a bunch of cardiac kids who turn every game into a thriller. "Anyone who doesn't realize the fight in the Fighting Irish," Weis said, "is missing the boat."

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